Nature play and exploration varies in early childhood (broadly: infant to grade 3) programs and are subject to the local and state licensing regulations, a program’s choice of curriculum, the local environment and weather, and the support of the administration. A conference is an effective way to get a lot of science content knowledge about that local environment and the living organisms that reside there, and to learn developmentally appropriate ways to share that information with young children as you give them experiences that will invite them to continue to explore nature over their lifetimes.
The “Getting Kids Outdoors in Nature” conference, organized by the early childhood committee of NoVA Outside, brought together educators in varied roles from the usual mix of early childhood programs, all interested in learning more about nature education.
In her keynote address, Outdoor Education and Nature Connection Specialist Amy Beam encouraged us to let children take risks that help develop their gross motor skills and their confidence in their own problem-solving abilities. She spoke about those “tender conversations” when children are confronted with a robin eating a ‘friend’ worm and begin to understand the needs of living organisms. The examples she brought of the many different materials she and the children take with them on their long walks through natural areas helped us plan for our own programs. Beam works as an outdoor educator with Montessori schools in the Washington, D.C. area, and she appeared in the film Mother Nature’s Child.
In her breakout sessions Beam taught fun activities, games, songs and techniques that awaken and deepen children’s innate love of nature and learning.
Experienced preschool directors and naturalists talked about their love of nature, and shared tips and expertise for facilitating children’s learning in nature.
Directors Debbie Brown
, Susan Parker
, and Margaret Moran
lead half-day parent co-op programs with classes that spend days each week entirely outdoors on “field trips” in partnering local parks. They talked about the on-going process to educate parents and other family members on the benefits of outdoor experiences that take place off the playground. Their trials and triumphs of adding experiences in nature to their programs resonated with the conference participants who had many questions!
, also the director of a half-day parent co-op program, has found that play gets a child closer to “ready to learn” than anything else, but adults/parents need to see that teachers are checking off the boxes of curriculum and standards. She advised directing attention to the value of play and playful learning by documenting and explaining to parents how nature play does more than check all the boxes, meeting education standards and especially incorporating the arc of human growth and development so children are taught in a developmentally appropriate way. For educators who plan to incorporate more time in natural areas, Romanoff recommends to “start small,” recounting how her first walking excursions were too far, leaving some children too tired and cranky to enjoy the natural space when they arrived. Now she pulls a wagon. When most children wanted to ride in the wagon, Romanoff talked with them, saying, “You want to go in the wagon but you don’t need to go in the wagon.” These conversations built empathy which was displayed at the park as children figured out how to partner with each other to accomplish tasks that were easier for one child and hard for another
Alonso Abugattas, Arlington Parks Naturalist and Capital Naturalist blogger
, advises us to be flexible and use the “interpretive moment” to teach about whatever in nature has children’s attention. His enthusiasm for small wildlife was infectious: “Those millipedes are so cool!” making me excited about searching for them. If you have difficulty locating small animals like millipedes and isopods, use his technique of putting a board or old door down on the ground. After a few days, open this “Door to the Underground” to reveal millipedes, isopods, slugs, worms, and more. He cautioned us to always check for yellow jacket wasps
before we turn over a log as they may be nesting under it. And to wash hands after outdoor explorations.
Naturalist Sarah Glassco, says a school garden is great for getting kids outdoors and attracting wildlife. Many programs do not have access to a more-or-less natural area so a garden is a good place to experience nature. She brought a mini-library of her favorite resources so participants could become familiar with them and research their nature observations when she took the group outdoors.
In every session, participants shared their successes in teaching children in outdoor settings and problem-solved how to work through the hurdles that keep us from teaching outdoors. After the sessions we gathered for lunch and casual discussions. Lunch and networking, two very important experiences for early childhood educators that we often don’t get time for!